Tom Waits, one of music’s most enigmatic and peculiar figures, has been releasing albums since the early ’70s, but he was never really in danger of losing steam. He could only get wiser and stranger with age, his singular worldview presumably tagging along, ready to transform his anomalous ideas into nightmarish soundscapes. So there was never any doubt that this year’s troika, Orphans (three meaty discs entitled “Brawlers,” “Bawlers” and “Bastards”), would fail to deliver. The album embraces its staggering fifty-six-song scope and emerges as an ample fix — rather than an overdose — for Waits addicts.
“Brawlers” is a fantastic collection of potent, cranky, almost danceable rock, the sort of songs that would spin in the seediest of bars if anyone but Waits had been the artist. (As such, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them in college martini lounges this holiday season.) Our man has as much soul here as ever, and between “Puttin’ On the Dog” and “Sea of Love,” he very nearly achieves sexiness. Fuzzy, frightening, uncomfortable sexiness, sure, but sexiness nonetheless.
The second disc, “Bawlers,” evokes a heady sense of bitter romanticism, the thoughts of a cynic seeing things through faintly rose-colored glasses. It’s made up of eerie wallpaper ballads, love songs and tragedies. Some of this stuff is like inversed Leonard Cohen or, perhaps, the kind of music Cohen would make if everyone he loved was attacked by wild dogs and their funerals were crashed by circus clowns. Bawlers isn’t as odd all that (certainly not as odd as some Waits music), but it is as gloomy.
With “Brawlers” being boppily insistent and “Bawlers” being aptly tears-in-my-vodka melancholy, I would have expected “Bastards” to turn out acidic and vile. That’s partly true, but in a pleasantly unexpected surprise, the third and final voyage here ends up as a sort of mixtape of every Waits talk-story-song you know and love (albeit with exclusively new material). “Army Ants” is marble-mouthed National Geographic lesson on insects-meets-“What’s He Building in There?” creepiness. “First Kiss,” “Nirvana” and “Children’s Story” treat us to bedtime tales we never wanted to hear.
Orphans is something akin to taking a journey through a familiar yet entirely foreign dream-place. Or possibly what it would be like to peer through a dusty window and watch your weird neighbor alone in his basement, sifting through relics from his past. Maybe reading a five-hundred-page novel authored by an ex-college professor who went insane some years before writing it. Whatever way you qualify it, Orphans is an experience of the most memorable kind.
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